China the Future of Travel interviews: Sylvie Chen

Case study 8: Understanding Great China disparities


Sylvie Chen has worked as a licensed Tour Leader for a leading luxury travel agency in Taiwan since 2002. Her most recent role was Director of Marketing and Product Development, where she was responsible for developing new tour itineraries and maintaining supplier relationships as well as presenting and selling the tours to high-end and incentive clients from Taiwan and Mainland China.

          How did you get into the outbound tourism business in the first place?

I like travelling and I travelled quite a lot before working for a travel agency. At that time, my preference was to work for a foreign tourism promotion board but there wasn’t a position available, therefore I applied for a travel agency known for high-end outbound travel. I thought it could be a springboard for me then I found myself fitting the job and enjoying it. I felt that I could introduce favourite places around the world to other people in my way.

Are there differences in the travel habits and behaviour of Taiwan and Mainland Chinese tourists who travel in groups or as individuals?

Yes, they were quite different years ago but are less different now for higher end groups and individual travellers.

  • Taiwanese group travellers need a minimum 4-star city center hotel. The location is very important for Taiwanese as in the evening they can walk around town alone. More Chinese tourists now request better hotels or designer hotels in city centres.
  • Taiwanese tend to go on regional theme tours (including 2-3 countries, for example Alps scenery tour with southern Germany and Austria) or single country tour in 10-12 days, rather than 5-6 countries in 10 days which was popular with Mainland Chinese groups. Recently, wealthy Chinese, request to stay in one region or one country more. They tend to follow Taiwanese’s tour style and modify to fit what they need. For example a tour to the Bordeaux wine region of France for 8 days.
  • Taiwanese seem to focus more on food and hotel quality than shopping. Taiwanese often ask for Michelin rated restaurants and spend 2-3 hours dining. Chinese groups or individuals don’t really expect to eat Chinese meals all the time, but perhaps every 2-3 days or twice on their tour. It’s better to arrange the last dinner in Chinese style as it is referred to as a “Farewell Banquet”. Individual Chinese travellers are more willing to taste local food, even street food, like local sweets in France, gelato in Italy, Nerbone in Florence, Sacher cake in Austria etc. They want to try them as snacks.

What are some of the ways in which destination management companies (DMC or ground handlers) can really offer exceptional service to high-end Chinese clients?

The most important thing is to be flexible with everything. Most wealthy travelers can travel whenever they want, but easily change or cancel their travel plans in the last minute. Therefore, being flexible is vital to retain their trust. By paying attention to their individual needs, you can anticipate the clients’ need before they even ask. Prepare to provide updated, reliable first-hand information that cannot be found in guide book, like secret cafe, secret photo point etc.

What do you think are the hot destinations or travel themes for Chinese in the next 2-3 years?

I think it would be the Balkan region or more specifically the Adriatic Sea. As they have traveled quite a lot, they tend to seek places where they can experience a better life quality. Natural scenery will always be popular for Chinese as it is quite difficult for them to find it in China. Moreover for Chinese, the Adriatic region has abundant scenery of water and mountains, highly appreciated in Chinese culture.

You have represented companies at luxury consumer events in China. What would you say are the benefits of exhibiting at such shows and what kind of company would benefit from it?

Independent travel is growing fastest among the wealthy. Even if they book their travel through a travel agency, they know what they are looking for and spend a lot of time researching online and speaking to their friends about their travel experience. Direct contact with the customers is becoming really crucial in this environment. These luxury events attract both the ultra wealthy and the aspirational. Any company that presents services or products that provide a better quality of life and focuses on lifestyle, such as travel, entertainment, design, education will find it beneficial.

Why do you think it is important for Chinese agents to personally meet with senior management of the service company?

There is a Chinese proverb 見面三分情 which means a meeting in person is always the best way to build strong relationships. Chinese business culture revolves around personal relationships and trust is something that cannot be built over email or Skype.

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